Growing up, my children swam competitively, often facing two separate dynamics as they were training and racing. Swimming is a timed sport (like running), so speed is the most important consideration for athletes. There were two important ways to track and evaluate their swimming:
- CUT TIMES: The first measure reflects how well a swimmer performs compared to everyone else (teammates, competitors, records, and so forth). These measures are often referred to as cut times: the speed threshold you must reach to be fast enough to qualify for a certain event or team. (For example, at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, the cut times for Wave I in the 50-meter freestyle were 23:19 seconds for men and 25:99 for women). Cut times compare your performance to external benchmarks.
- PERSONAL IMPROVEMENT: The second measurement relates to your own goals and personal bests. How much faster are you today versus last month? Last year? Your last swim meet? The intention here is to track how much better you are performing over time so you can address any shortcomings. This factor is internal: your competition is your own performance.
Benchmarks vs. Progress in the Business World
Both of these dimensions apply in the business world as we follow the process of benchmarking. Sometimes we look exclusively at the first consideration: how are we doing compared to everybody else? There is certainly some merit in at least determining whether you have made your cut times. You need to assess whether you are swimming well enough to compete and if not, modify your approach as needed. Fall too far behind, and you may be out of the running.
However, challenges can arise from relying so much upon external feedback that you fail to consider how you are personally performing. For example, my children would sometimes become so focused on making their cut times, they didn’t notice their (sometimes significant) improvement in personal performance.
The Importance of Balance
In fact, one son who was really focused on a cut time began to get angry and depressed when he was unable to hit his mark. Soon his whole sense of well-being became shaped by his ability (or inability) to reach that goal. There came a point when we pulled him aside to say, “We understand your goal, and we support your intentions. We want you to be successful. But as we watch you in the pool, you look completely miserable. You don’t look like you enjoy swimming anymore. You’re so focused on this cut time that you’ve completely missed your dramatic personal improvement.” At that time, he was doing well compared to three to six to twelve months earlier. Yet, he had become so dejected that he still was not hitting his target cut time that he totally lost sight of his improvement. Balance between the external benchmarks and his internal benchmarks was key.
We often see this same outcome in businesses. As we work with organizations, we find leaders and employees alike who over-rely on looking externally and taking signals from the outside world. For example, we might become obsessed with sales figures, stock performance, or opinions the news media reports. I’m not suggesting that market and financial performance is unimportant: if we don’t hit that cut time, everything we do could be for naught. At the same time, we need recognize the incremental improvements we as an organization are making against our own capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. When we over-focus on external measurements, we risk being in a constant state of discouragement because we fail to recognize our progress and improvements.
The Alignment Index
Like competitive athletes, organizations need the ability to look outside their organization as well as assess internal improvement. One tool we use for doing this type of analysis is our Alignment Index. The Alignment Index is designed around our organizational cube model detailed in our book, Mastering the Cube. This tool poses questions for leaders that explore how well their organization is aligned with strategic goals. It does not try to compare the organization to the competition or other external measurements. Rather, we ask, in essence, “How fast are we? And from an internal tracking perspective, are we getting better? Are we getting more aligned?” Improving performance against internal metrics also improves an organization’s performance against external measurements.
The Alignment Index tool provides guidance that becomes a healthy and important part of benchmarking performance. The tool can help an organization pinpoint the factors that are most important in improving effectiveness and maintaining momentum. The results can be inspirational to organizations as they derive the satisfaction of making tangible progress and improvement.